Architect and Community Advocate Dan Kirby Reflects on His Storied Career in #BlackBusinessMonth Q&A

Dan Kirby FAIA FAICP has led design, construction and development projects across various sectors, including mixed-use, retail, hospitality, and government work. Dan is currently the Florida/Puerto Rico Market Leader for the Cities and Places group at the global professional and technical services firm Jacobs. Throughout his career, he has championed diversity and inclusivity initiatives not only at Jacobs but throughout the industry.

In 2022, he was recognized as the recipient of the Honor Award for Social Advancement of the Profession by the Florida Association of the American Institute of Architects, and he is the Vice President/President-Elect of the Washington, D.C.-based Architects Foundation.

Dan’s hard work and service are evidenced by his transformational work and past stints as President of AIA Florida and President of the Orlando Utilities Commission. Dan has been recognized as a Fellow in both the American Institute of Architects and the American Institute of Certified Planners. To date, less than 20 people have achieved this dual recognition. Given Dan’s stellar reputation throughout the design industry, it is time to celebrate his leadership, professionalism, and perseverance as part of our Black Business Month commemoration. 

Tell us a little bit about growing up in New Jersey and Florida. How do you feel those two places helped shape your outlook on life and, later, on business? 

As a native of Newark, New Jersey, I consider myself a city kid, but I had parents and grandparents from small towns in Georgia, so I can relate to the red clay hills as much as the city streets. My early upbringing was in an entirely African-American community where I felt encouraged, supported, and celebrated. I was surrounded by history, culture, and examples of people who persevered through hard times. I was a public school kid living in a neighborhood of working-class and low-income folks, but that was just the world we knew. That all changed by 5th grade when I became a student at one of the most exclusive private schools in New Jersey. There was wealth like I hadn’t seen before, and that is also where I found out what it really meant to be in the minority. I was one of only five students of color in a school of over 500. My high school in Florida was much more diverse, but still being in a different part of the country was quite a change.

What were some of your earliest exposures to architecture and design? How did they inspire you? 

My first exposure to architecture came through our church. My dad came home one day with a set of blueprints for the planned building renovation. There was a rendering on the cover that just blew me away. I asked him who could make something like this, and he told me it came from “the architect.” From that day, that is what I wanted to do.

What major challenges did you face while trying to make a name for yourself in the industry?

Architecture is hard. Architecture school meant long hours and facing criticism of your ideas and work. Once you’re in the profession, it typically takes some time before you are entrusted to lead a project. 

How did you and Rebecca Palmer meet, and what are some efforts you both worked on in the community?

Rebecca and I first met through mutual friends. We bonded through community service. I was the founder and first president of the Orlando Young Professional Leadership Group. Rebecca was one of our founding members and also the second president.

You have such a busy and fruitful career; how do you have the time and energy to give back to entities like the AIA Orlando and the Orlando Utilities Commission when you’re not at the office? Why do you feel that work is important?

If you want things to get better, you need to roll up your sleeves and put in the work. Helping others was ingrained in me early on through my family and through my faith. Also I’m a member of Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, and one of our cardinal principles is uplift. We recognize the need to lift up others as we climb. 

How is it possible to get more people of color, women, and other underrepresented professionals into leadership positions within the design industry?

There are many solid efforts to diversify the pipeline and to intentionally engage both minority-owned businesses and individuals. At Jacobs, we are committed to “live inclusion” by creating diverse teams, providing leadership opportunities, internships, investing in local communities, and cultivating partnerships. These commitments have made our work better. I have in the past and continue to work now to fund scholarships through volunteer efforts, alumni groups, and at a national level through the Architects Foundation.

Serving as the first African-American president of the Florida Association of the American Institute of Architects was an incredible honor. While I represented all architects in the state, it was amazing to be a trailblazer. Years later, I achieved another first in being honored with the Gold Medal. The best part of that was the chance to say thank you to mentors, colleagues, friends, and family.

What do you see as some of the design industry trends in the next five to 10 years?

At Jacobs, we are at the forefront of dealing with the world’s biggest challenges. In my part of the business, that means advancing smart buildings, next-generation infrastructure, and mobility in the context of human-centered design. All of these are major economic drivers. They require the curation of services and the creation of solutions across multiple disciplines. The challenges ahead of us are adaptation, resilience, and using an avalanche of information to enable decision-makers. 

Any parting advice for someone considering a career in architecture and design? Especially young people of color?

I have a lot of faith in Gen Z and Millenials. They are pushing us to create a better work-life balance. We have to create inclusive processes and places. People that care need to stay vigilant and involved. Helping other people is the only worthwhile legacy.

To reach Dan directly, please contact the Orlando office of Jacobs at 407.903.5001.